WISCONSIN: Nobody wants to be a criminal. That’s the thought that crosses John’s mind each night as he gets ready for bed. Part of his nightly routine involves breaking the law, but he isn’t losing any sleep over it. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
John (not his real name) uses medical marijuana to manage the chronic, neuropathic pain that he’s lived with for the past nine years. Surgery to correct a herniated disc left scar tissue that put pressure on a root nerve, causing unbearable pain in his leg and foot. During the day he could keep himself distracted enough to cope, but at night he would lie awake in agony — sometimes going as many as five nights without sleep.
“It’s like stepping on a nail,” he said.
His doctors at Gundersen Health System, unable to treat the source of his pain, tried to treat the symptoms. A long list of powerful opiates did little to dull the ache, and the side effects left him walking in a constant fog.
“My mind is what I am,” he said. “When I can’t think clearly, I’m crippled.”
He tried acupuncture, an inversion table, homemade pressure braces for his foot. He’s had anti-inflammatory medicine injected into the base of his spine. He’s seen four physical therapists, including one in the Twin Cities whom he took 15 round trips to see, paying for his visits out of pocket. A spinal specialist in Madison finally told him he was among the 1 percent of patients who would never get relief.
As a last resort, John turned to marijuana. In his younger years, he “used to smoke a little pot,” but now, in his 70s, he says he has no interest in getting high. Intrigued by the drug’s potential as a pain reliever and out of other options, he ate a pot brownie before bedtime. He slept through the night.
“This stuff has worked wonderfully for me when nothing else did,” he said. “I have friends with cancer and chronic pain — I know this could help them too. But if I were to offer them some, would I be a friend, or would I be a felon?”
Breaking the law
There are thousands of Wisconsin residents illegally using medical marijuana, said Gary Storck, a Madison medical marijuana activist who co-founded the Wisconsin and Madison chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the nonprofit IMMLY (Is My Medicine Legal Yet?).
“So many people have been forced into making that choice,” said Storck, who has used marijuana to treat his glaucoma for decades. “People are going to do it anyway, if they’re willing to break the law.”
But if some Wisconsin lawmakers have their way, they won’t have to. Previous attempts to pass a medical marijuana legalization bill in Wisconsin have failed, but that won’t stop Democrats from trying again this year.
Sen. John Erpenbach of Middleton and Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison will introduce a legalization bill when the legislature reconvenes for its fall session. This is the third time Erpenbach has co-sponsored such a bill; Taylor is taking the place of former Rep. Mark Pocan, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last year.
“It will be tough this time,” Erpenbach said. “It was tough last time when Democrats were in the majority.”